The forum was national television. The opponent was the world champion Mets. And the message was clear. In the course of one afternoon, Tim (Rock) Raines 1) staked a claim as the best player in the National League, 2) served notice that the Montreal Expos are no longer to be made fun of, 3) set the concept of spring training back, oh, about 100 years and 4) showed baseball how silly it was to keep him out of the lineup—any lineup—for four weeks.
Just 34 hours after his 4 a.m. contract signing last Friday, Raines settled into the lefthand side of the batter's box and hit his first major league pitch since last Oct. 4 for a triple. He then added two singles—one lefty, one righty—and finally, batting righthanded in the 10th, whacked a Jesse Orosco fastball into the leftfield picnic area for a grand slam homer. Raines's first-day box score read 5 3 4 4, and his performance left the Met's Wally Backman saying, "That was an incredible thing we just saw."
"I had a lot of dreams about this day," said Raines, "but this wasn't one of them."
Baseball historians would probably have to go back to 1931 to find a comparable performance. That's when Al Simmons, the defending American League batting champ, ended a holdout minutes before the Philadelphia Athletics' opening game, then hit his first live pitch for a homer. Simmons stayed hot and won the batting crown again.
Raines is also defending a batting title (.334), but this spring he didn't know where the defense would take place. A free agent, he had rejected the Expos' three-year, $4.8 million offer last January and waited. "I was a phone call away from San 'Diego," he says, "but they called back and said they were going with younger players." Younger players? Raines, a six-year veteran, is all of 27. Why would no team make a serious bid for the only player to have stolen at least 70 bases every year of his career, a .305 lifetime hitter, a leader who was so miffed at losing a baseball Superstars competition in 1986 that he underwent special training for this year's event and blew away the likes of Bo Jackson, Mike Schmidt and Eric Davis? Why didn't anyone want a piece of the Rock? The reason begins with a "c" and rhymes with confusion.
So while the Expos, who couldn't re-sign him until May 1, worked out in West Palm Beach, Raines stayed in shape in Sanford, Fla., playing with the high school baseball team and running with the girls' track team. In March, Raines said, "I'm not going back to Montreal under any circumstances." But it soon became clear he would have to swallow his considerable pride. After a few weeks of job hunting, he resumed training in Sarasota, near his attorneys, working with the team from Palmetto High.
At 12:01 a.m. on May 1, law-abiding Expo officials sat down with Raines and his attorneys in Sarasota. Three hours later they agreed on a three-year contract for $5 million—$200,000 more than the Expos' final offer on Jan. 8 and considerably more than the insulting $1.1 million one-year deal the Padres offered. The next day Raines went 4 for 6 in a game between unassigned Expo and Astro minor leaguers in Bradenton. That evening, he flew to New York and watched the end of the Expos' 7-6 loss to the Mets. Greeting Raines upon his arrival, Expos batting instructor Bobby Winkles said, "Tim, where have you been?"
"Japan," said Raines, laughing.
On Saturday Raines said, "I usually get off to a bad start in April, anyway. Now instead of batting .200 going into May, I'm batting .000." Naturally, he drew a crowd for his first major league batting practice in seven months. "What do you think?" Expo coach Jackie Moore asked manager Buck Rodgers. "I think we can use him," said Rodgers. But Raines hit only two balls out of the batting cage and as he walked away, some teammates said, "You can't leave! You need more practice." Winkles pointed out to Raines that he was dropping his hands before swinging.
"The first time up," said Raines later, "I told myself, I'm not going to drop my hands." Hands high, he smashed David Cone's first pitch off the rightfield wall. Raines glided into third. When he got up, his smile seemed to shed light on the Expos' dugout. Several players were mimicking Raines breathing hard.
In the third inning Cone walked him. He stole second and ignited a two-run rally. In the fifth, second baseman Tim Teufel robbed him of a hit with a fine backhand play. In the sixth he singled off Terry Leach. In the seventh, he went all out for a fly ball by Teufel, just failing to make a diving catch. During the game, Raines needed tips on the Expos' new hand greeting from Floyd Youmans and Herm Winningham. "I had forgotten how to throw the high five," said Raines. "It had been so long. They're now using forearms instead of hands."
In the ninth, with the Expos trailing 6-4, Raines led off with a routine ground ball to shortstop Al Pedrique, but he beat Pedrique's tentative throw. "That was the biggest hit of the game," said Raines. "My hustle got me that." Tim Wallach singled and, after a run-scoring groundout, Vance Law singled in the tying run. Then in the 10th, Reid Nichols, Casey Candaele and Winningham—not exactly a fearsome trio—all singled to load the bases. Orosco's first pitch to Raines was a slider for a ball, so, said Raines, "I was sitting on the fastball, and that's just what he threw me."
"We might not start spring training until April 1 next year," said Rodgers after the game. "I'll tell the players, 'Work out at your high school field at home, and report in shape.' " Said Raines, "I've got to thank the kids at Palmetto High for helping me get ready." Palmetto should be bugged by scouts this week.
"I hope they don't expect me to do this every day," said Raines. "I don't want everyone to think I'm a savior."
On Sunday, Raines arrived at Shea stiff and scratched from his outfield dive the day before. A letdown would have been understandable. No way. In his first at bat Raines rocked another homer to lead a 2-0 victory. Rodgers was right. The Expos can use him.